Questions Considered - Activating Your Board
Tuesday, April 26, 2016 12:00 AM



ARTS Action Research


How can I activate my board?


A common challenge for nonprofits we work with is the difficulty of fully engaging board members in the work of being ambassadors, resource generators and relationship builders for our organizations.  We are often asked ‘how do I get my board to more actively engage?’ 

In considering the question and the often frustrating circumstances that lead to it – minimal attendance at performances and events, lack of response to e-mails and a flurry of last minute cancellations that result in board meetings without quorum – we need to understand what we are up against.   In our experience, most board members are well meaning and committed to the organizations they serve. But, when the day-to-day obligations of work, family and community overwhelm them the needs of the nonprofit often fall to the bottom of their to-do list.  Improvement can be made, but we must start by setting realistic expectations and recognizing that not every board member is able to contribute in exactly the same way or at the same level.

There is a lot of mythology about boards, which leads to unrealistic expectations both in terms of what arts leaders expect from their board members and how board members expect they will be integrated into our organizations.  Setting realistic expectations means considering the realities of board members lives and focusing on the most meaningful things they can be doing for our organizations rather than asking for many commitments in the hope that they will come through on at least a few.  It means working individually with board members to develop their own personal goals and commitments. It requires us to have honest conversations about what both parties will get out of the relationship. 

Clear expectations are essential right from the start.  It is important when cultivating and recruiting board members that there is no hidden agenda and that neither party is coy about what they expect or what they will deliver. Some organizations fear that clearly stated expectations, especially around giving, might scare off potential board members.  But, if what we need and want is board members willing and able to make a significant leadership contribution to the organization, clear and upfront discussion is essential.  In these conversations both the leadership and the prospective board member should consider carefully their available time and other obligations and consciously commit only to what they can deliver.  Everyone should know that it is better to make a small commitment and deliver than to make grand promises that go unfulfilled.

Beyond expectations, communication is key.  Whatever time you have to commit to nurturing your board, you should be spending about 90% of it on communication.  In order to build relationships with board members and to create a greater sense of meaning for them (which will naturally build engagement), we need to communicate regularly not only about what we are asking of them but also about the ongoing activities and goals of our organizations.  Many board members struggle when asked to take on a task because they don’t understand the bigger picture.  Our ongoing communication with them should create the context that makes their role and impact clear.   

Finally, if we want to keep boards motivated, we need to celebrate success with them – both the organization’s successes of which they are part and their own successes as a board.  When they can see goals being reached and understand the impact of their contributions, most board members will be more inclined to step up as ambassadors and relationship builders.  Celebration brings us together in positive ways that reinforce our shared values and creates an environment in which everyone feels appreciated and engaged.

Do you have stories of successful board engagement strategies? We’d love to hear what has worked for you.

Do you have questions in your organization or work that you would like to work with ARTS Action Research to explore and understand?  AAR Associates are available to A.R.T./New York members throughout the year, conducting Nancy Quinn Program workshops and providing one on one consulting support through the Theatre Leadership Program. For more information about these programs, contact Ann Marie Lonsdale at A.R.T./New York.